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Family finds new ways to stay calm and connected

December 28, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 27, 2017

Family finds new ways to stay calm and connected

In our family, tempers sometimes flare. Often mine.

Last June, during the pre-dinner hour, when son Adam and daughter Zoe were rightfully tired from their school day — not to mention the cumulative fatigue of the school year — conflict arose.

While I no longer remember exactly how it started or what was said, I vividly recall Adam storming out of the room, then returning to shove in my hand a laminated sheet of paper, on which was printed a multi-color feelings chart similar to those used in his preschool and kindergarten classrooms, which we had downloaded from the internet for home use.

“You need this,” he exclaimed, “you’re in the red zone!”

It was a beautiful moment. I felt tears welling up at the realization that after years of receiving adult coaching about the use of a feelings chart — a pie graph of colors symbolizing common feelings; red for angry, blue for sad, green for calm — Adam, at age 7, was coaching me, right when I needed it most!

A more recent conflict also included raised voices. The incident ended as quickly as it arose — and was followed by apologies and emotional reconnection. Still, for days I contemplated what we could do differently — specifically what I could do — to help curb hot tempers and yelling in our home.

A few days later, I found myself reviewing materials in advance of a work webinar — on feelings management. This new approach went beyond the basic feelings chart Adam had handed to me, so I printed out the illustrated overview and had it laminated.

That weekend, while enjoying Lori’s famous fresh baked pumpkin muffins and other breakfast fare, we convened a family meeting so that we could use the new feelings management chart to discuss ways we could make desired changes in our home.

Everyone agreed that yelling does not feel good — to yell or to be yelled at — and that it would be great if we could find other ways of both expressing frustrations and preventing them from escalating. Then I presented the new chart and we practiced using it.

First, each of us shared a situation that is a source of frustration, which was easy to do. For me, when Zoe and Adam, now 11 an 8, argue and yell, I start moving toward the red zone — it drives me crazy!

In the second step, we took turns naming the way we each feel in our bodies when we are calm, first getting upset, and then more upset. This required a bit more thought but is an important exercise to increase awareness about one’s self. Bodily feelings when more upset, for our family, included tightness in the chest and jaw.

Then we discussed what others notice about our feelings. Learning to notice the subtle emotional response of others can be very helpful, but just as important is hearing what others notice in us, which we might not realize. Lori and I notice that any sign of teasing between Zoe and Adam is an early indicator that one or both are moving toward greater frustration.

The final part of our conversation was for each of us to identify strategies that work best for calming ourselves down. Some of our favorites include taking a walk, alone time in a quiet room, and vigorous activity — kicking a soccer ball, pounding on a pillow or doing push-ups.

The key to staying in the green — calm — zone, is to notice and respond positively to the early signs of upset, including our bodily feelings and the feelings we observe in other. Once in the red zone, our nervous system is on high alert and simply not capable of processing rational thought and conversation effectively, which is why discussing feelings management is best done when calm (while eating muffins can be extra helpful). This is just as true for adults as for toddlers — we all have our limits and we can all have temper tantrums.

So, with our bellies full of tasty muffins, we agreed to support each other — and ourselves — with staying calm and connected. And with the new chart posted on the kitchen wall, I’m certain there will be ample opportunity to practice applying these steps — especially during the upcoming 10-day school break and long New England winter!

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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